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Farmers begin new fight

The electricity farmers use to power irrigation systems in the Klamath Basin is about to become more expensive

January 24, 2005

By the Associated Press

For years, the biggest battle in the Klamath River Basin has been over water.

Now, the fight is shifting to another key resource: electricity.

Power company PacifiCorp has notified state officials of the expiration of a deal that for decades has supplied farmers on the Oregon-California line with some of the cheapest electricity around.

That means that by next year, about 1,300 farms could face rate increases of more than tenfold. They say that would seriously impact the plumbing of a region that depends on electric pumps to move its precious water, making it very expensive to cycle water through the maze of canals and dikes that keep many fields irrigated

Farmers unable to afford the new rates could see their crops evaporate from the arid landscape.

''The profitability of growing many crops is pretty thin already,'' said farmer Lynn Long, who leads a group that opposes the rate change. ''This would push people over the edge.''

Farmers have allotted thousands of dollars to challenge the rate increases before federal agencies and the state Public Utility Commission.

The low rates were a condition when the government let PacifiCorp's predecessor build hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River in 1917. Farmers say the company remains obligated to continue the discount, but PacifiCorp says it's not.

''This is a tough, tough problem down there,'' said Jon Coney, a spokesman for PacifiCorp.

He said the company is trying to find ways to ease the effects on farmers by helping them pursue solar energy or using power during cheaper, off-peak hours.

Meanwhile, environmental groups see the rate increases as a free-market tool that will eliminate marginal farms and free up water for fish and birds.

''When this goes away, it's going to be a big step in bringing everything back into balance,'' said Jim McCarthy of the Oregon Natural Resources Council.

Farmers say the low rates represent PacifiCorp's payment for the use of local water to generate the power it sells. But the company counters that the water carries so many endangered species restrictions today that it's no longer as valuable.

Others claim that other PacifiCorp customers are stuck paying for the farmers' low rate.

''Is it fair to have an irrigator in Deschutes County paying a higher rate to create a lower rate for someone in Klamath Falls?'' asks Bob Jenks, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board of Oregon, a statewide power watchdog.

Though Klamath dams together produce about one-seventh the power capacity of Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River, farmers say, they are a crucial element in the basin's lifeline.

''We're talking about a community interest here, because every business is going to be affected by the power rates in one way or another,'' said farmer Ed Bair. ''Farms are just part of the picture.''






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